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Jonathan Bernstein

Trump’s Unilateral Actions Are a Sign of Weakness

Acting alone isn’t the same as exercising power. It shows the president still hasn’t learned the rules of the game.

Still not getting it.

Still not getting it.

Photographer: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

I can’t manage to put aside an Axios item about President Donald Trump from last Friday. Jonathan Swan reported that “administration officials past and present have told us that Trump savors news coverage that shows him acting unilaterally.” Swan was focused on Trump’s habit of overruling and humiliating his staffers and appointees, which is partly why his administration has had record turnover and why the applicant pool is so small for open jobs. But the point about acting alone is worth delving into. 

For one thing, Trump often seems to confuse acting with talking. Take the Special Olympics. Trump claimed to be overriding Education Secretary Betsy DeVos last week when he said he “just authorized a funding of the Special Olympics.” The only problem? Trump didn’t authorize anything. Instead, he contradicted his own budget request to Congress, which had in fact slashed funding for the Special Olympics and which Congress was going to ignore anyway. It’s not just that Trump’s reversal had no effect. It’s that Trump, after hiring extreme cost-cutters to write his budget and then (apparently) ignoring what they produced, was reversing himself without seeming to realize it. His pretense of unilateral action ended up being a substitute for doing the job in the first place.